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A College Student Mysteriously Disappeared Mid-Shift from Her Summer Job. It Would Take Years To Find Her Killer
Brooke Wilberger had her life in front of her when she vanished from the apartment complex where she was working during the summer of 2004, leaving her anguished family desperately searching for answers.
It had been just like any other day for Brooke Wilberger.
The Brigham Young University college student was back home in Oregon for the summer and was working at the Oak Park Apartments, where her sister was the apartment manager, when the 19-year-old vanished without a trace.
For Brooke’s anguished family, it would take years to learn what happened to the beautiful, reliable and thoughtful teen, who loved animals and dreamt of becoming a speech pathologist.
Who was Brooke Wilberger?
Brooke grew up as the fifth child in a large family of six children near Eugene, Oregon.
“We used to just have so much fun dressing her up,” her older sister Stephanie recalled to Dateline’s Kate Snow. “She was kind of our little toy, if you will. She was just fun.”
Brooke excelled at 4-H and was a talented athlete, playing basketball, soccer and running track.
“She was better than most of the rest of us at the sports we played,” her brother Bryce remembered.
At the age of 16, Brooke began dating her childhood friend Justin and eventually followed him to BYU for college.
“She just really wanted to experience life outside of our community and you know, just kind of branch out,” her mother Cammy Wilberger said.
When did Brooke Wilberger Disappear?
Brooke thrived in the college environment, but after her freshman year, she returned to Oregon for summer break. Her sister Stephanie got her a job at the Oak Park Apartments in Corvallis, Oregon, a complex that was just a few blocks from Oregon State University. That’s where Brooke was the morning of May 24, 2004.
Stephanie, who was managing the apartment complex at the time with her husband, remembers seeing her sister from her own apartment at the large complex outside filling a bucket of water around 10 a.m.
Brooke was expected at her sister’s for lunch that afternoon, but when she hadn’t shown up by 1 p.m. her sister went out to search for her and made a chilling discovery.
The bucket she had been filling sat alone next to a lamp post Brooke had been washing earlier that morning. The teen’s flip flops lay near the bucket, broken, but there was no sign of Brooke.
“The little piece of plastic that goes between your toe was ripped out on one and there were muddy toe prints sliding down the actual sole of the shoe, so it was clear that she was trying to keep them—that she was trying to stay put and stay grounded when she lost her shoes,” Stephanie said.
Stephanie’s husband placed a call to 911 at 3:07 p.m. to report her missing.
“I’ve got someone who’s missing—a worker of mine that we can’t seem to find,” he said. “I’m the manager of the Oak Park apartments and this worker actually happens to be my sister-in-law. She’s, uh, 19.”
It didn’t take long for investigators to conclude the teen had likely been abducted. Along with her flip flops, Brooke’s wallet, purse, cell phone and car had all been left behind. A witness reported hearing someone scream that morning around 10:30 a.m., but no one had seen anything suspicious and there were few other clues to her whereabouts.
Just hours after she disappeared, a community search party got underway. Investigators took a close look at the residents of the apartment complex and reached out to the approximately 2,000 sex offenders in the area.
“It was a rough day for sex offenders in our county because there was a team who went out and put their finger on every single one of them,” Corvallis Police Capt. Jonathan Sassaman said.
As the days stretched on, tips began pouring into the police hotline from people who believed they had seen Brooke throughout the country. Investigators even took a hard look at a man who had been found with thousands of pairs of women’s underwear stolen from college dorm rooms just weeks before the abduction, but nothing could ever link him to the crime.
“It was extraordinarily stressful,” Sassaman said of being unable to find Brooke’s abductor. “You had a community looking for answers. You had a community that was scared. Was there somebody else out there? Who’s going to be the next victim? And we’ve got a family in tremendous pain and they are hurting.”
Authorities finally got the break they needed when, 1,400 miles away in Albuquerque, New Mexico, another terrified college student was kidnapped, but managed to escape her attacker.
Waitress Dara Finks was driving her SUV down the street with her three daughters when they saw a naked woman running across the street and into a nearby restaurant.
Sensing something was wrong, Finks drove over to the restaurant where the woman was frantically trying to get help inside.
“No one helped her because we pulled around there and my daughter got out of the car and met her at the door and brought her over to the car and that’s when she said, ‘He’s got a knife, he’s trying to kill me,’” Finks recalled.
Finks told the 22-year-old woman, a foreign exchange student from Russia, to get into the car and they locked the doors just as the terrified woman spotted her attacker in a red compact car sitting at a nearby light. Finks called 911 and described the man, along with the vehicle.
The blonde-haired woman would later tell police she had been walking along the sidewalk when someone grabbed her from behind. The man pressed a knife into her throat, pulled her into the car, sexually assaulted her and then tied her up with her own shoe laces. When he stopped at a run-down apartment complex and went inside one of the apartments, she broke free and ran for help.
Using the description she provided to police of her attacker and his car—including distinctive red flower car seat covers and a small stuffed animal hanging on a window—police were able to track down the vehicle and arrest a man named Joel Courtney.
Who is Joel Courtney?
Courtney, a 38-year-old married father of three, was arrested for criminal sexual penetration, kidnapping and aggravated battery for the incident in New Mexico, but authorities suspected he could be involved in other crimes.
“You don’t start grabbing people in broad daylight off a street and grab them into your car when you’re almost 40, that’s not the way the criminal mind works,” prosecutor Theresa Whatley told Snow.
Authorities learned just six months before the attack in Albuquerque, Courtney’s wife had filed a restraining order against him alleging that he had choked her. Courtney’s sister Dina McBride also told Dateline that while growing up in Oregon, Courtney—who had a genius level IQ— fell into drugs, dabbled in satanism, was in and out of juvenile hall for offenses like sexual assault, and had even attempted to sexually assault her.
“He would come in in the middle of the night and put a hand around my neck and attempt to sexually assault me,” she recalled.
As investigators were delving into Courtney’s background, a detective in New Mexico learned that in January of 2004 Courtney had been arrested in Lincoln County, Oregon for driving under the influence. When he failed to show up in court, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
When the detective called the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and spoke to a detective there about the DUI case, he also revealed details about the sexual assault in New Mexico. The circumstances sounded eerily familiar to Brooke’s case and the Lincoln County detective told the investigator to reach out to the Corvallis Police. That simple conversation was all it took for Courtney to become a suspect in Brooke’s disappearance.
They learned that Courtney, his wife and children had been visiting McBride in the Portland suburbs in May 2004, placing him in the area at the time of the abduction. His cell phone also placed him in Corvallis that morning.
When investigators tracked down a work van he had been driving at the time and discovered Brooke’s DNA intermingled with Courtney’s inside the van, they had enough to file charges against him. He ultimately pleaded guilty in 2009 to aggravated murder in exchange for prosecutors not seeking the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Courtney had been out trolling for coeds near the university when he spotted Brooke, pulled her into the van, raped her and killed her.
Although her killer was finally discovered, Brooke’s family was still desperate to find her remains.
“We just wanted to bring her home,” Stephanie said.
Ultimately, five years after her disappearance, Courtney agreed to reveal where he hid the body in exchange for allowing him to serve out his life sentence in New Mexico, where he could be closer to his family.
Brooke was identified, in part, by a watch her mother had given her the Christmas before her death.
“I could be 80 years old and have my entire life behind me and I don’t think that I will ever reflect on what happened to her and be OK with it. Time’s not going to make that OK,” Stephanie said.